In the Garden:
Upper South
October, 2012
Regional Report

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Plant hyacinth bulbs now to experience their rich, heady scent next spring. Photo courtesy of Longfield Gardens. All rights reserved.

Dreaming of Spring Fragrance

Given the thousands of perfumes available, it's obvious that people react differently to fragrances and have particular favorites. Yet there are scents that are widely loved and favored. Among these is that of hyacinth, which for many of us, is synonymous with the fragrance of spring. In order to have that remarkable, heady scent wafting on gentle breezes next March and April, the piper must be paid now by planting these hardy spring-blooming bulbs this fall.

Hyacinth History and Folklore
The genetic ancestor of our modern hyacinths is Hyacinthus orientalis, native to Turkey and the Middle East. From there, it was cultivated by the ancient Greeks and Romans. Both Homer and Virgil described the plant's fragrance. These early hyacinths had only about 15 pale blue flowers on their 10-inch stems and were mainly valued for their scent.

The name hyacinth is derived from the Greek language and the mythology of a character named Hyakinthos, who was killed by Zephyr, the god of the west wind. The name is also said to mean "flower of rain." Much later, in the 1560s, Dutch hybridizers transformed it into the many-flowered gem we know today, when some 2,000 varieties were reported.

Hyacinths - Easy to Grow and Long-Lived
Hyacinths are among the easiest of bulbs to grow and are generally considered deer resistant. Plant the bulbs with the base 6 to 8 inches deep in rich, well-drained soil in a sunny location. Position bulbs about 6 inches apart in irregular groups of three or more for greatest impact. Fertilize with about a tablespoon of fertilizer per bulb in spring and fall.

Like daffodils, hyacinths will continue to grow and re-bloom year after year, although the stems may not produce quite as many flowers on each stem over time. Among the best varieties for long-term garden effect are Atlantic, Fondant, City of Haarlem, Gipsy Queen, Carnegie, and Lady Derby.

To prevent flower stems from toppling due to the weight of the flowers, try this trick from the bulb specialists at mail-order source Old House Gardens: "Take a thin green bamboo stake about 12 inches long and run it along right next to the stem from the top of the bloom-spike down into the soil a few inches (but not so deep that you hit the bulbs). The florets will clasp the stake and you're done."

I can attest that even with neglect hyacinths will thrive, although I don't necessarily recommend such negligence. In an area of my yard that seems to always miss being regularly weeded, the hyacinths continue to appear every spring in all their glory.

Some gardeners grow hyacinths more for color, as hyacinths offer some of the richest shades available for the spring garden. There are indigo blues as well as paler shades plus purple, lavender, cream, white, coral, blush rose, crimson, and fuchsia.

Hyacinths in the Garden and Home
Hyacinths provide elegant accents along walkways, around lamp posts or mail boxes, or at the front of the border. They are also quite effective when planted in groups among shrubs. Just be sure to place them where you can readily appreciate their fragrance and colors in early spring.

Hyacinths are also excellent container plants. Many gardeners regard sweetly scented hyacinths as an essential element in spring window boxes or containers placed near doorways.

Many gardeners also like to force successive flowerings of hyacinths indoors in flower pots. Using special glass vases for forcing hyacinths is also a possibility. In the mid-18th century, Madame de Pompadour, mistress of France's King Louis XV, ordered hundreds of hyacinths forced "on glasses" inside Versailles in winter, sparking a national rage for hyacinths among the French elite.

And don't forget that hyacinths also make wonderful cut flowers, often lasting seven days. Pick them when all the individual flowers are showing color and cut the flower stem as long as possible. Some people find the sap irritating, so use gloves when handling. Place the stems in water and let sit for several hours before arranging. Use water in the vase, not flower-arranging foam.

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